Wednesday, August 29, 2007
credit market insights
Through the conduits’ convoluted structures, banks were able to "lend" huge amounts off-balance sheet and collect fees on no-capital-required lines of credit. No one - and I mean no one - ever expected these conduits to move from off-balance sheet back on-balance sheet and I don't think the market yet understands the earnings, capital and liquidity impact of this migration. If you figure you need anywhere from 6-8% capital per dollar of loans, then a move of $1.0 trln from off-balance sheet to on requires $60-80 bln in additional equity capital. I don't know about you, but I don't see this kind of free capital sitting around.
... [T]he last consumer led recession was around 1990. Since then, the SEC has placed enormous pressure on the banks to minimize their loan loss reserves. The SEC hates earnings management and the loan loss provision has historically been a key way for banks to "save for a rainy day." I don't think the market yet appreciates the fact that banks are currently provisioned for the top of the market. (And, in fact, up until recently, most major banks reported net provision reductions over the last several quarters.) As credit continues to deteriorate, the earnings/capital hits will be enormous as provisions need to reflect higher and higher delinquency and loss rates. And, experience suggests, that when the banking regulators finally do begin to act (as they did in New England during the late 1980’s), the pendulum will push banks to over-reserve at what will ultimately be the bottom of the credit cycle.
read: regardless of what the market does, the fiscal/economic disaster in financials relating to asset-backed commerical paper is probably still in its early stages, and will likely hit the banks very hard. though its noted that the discount window is probably slowing the panic for now, there are very real limitations to what the fed can accept as collateral even at the discount window. the ability of banks to remonetize the shitty mortgage-backed securities and cdo's in this manner is limited -- particularly as much of it is on its way to being rerated, and the fed will not accept 'impaired' collateral. again, it comes back to the loans.
the bellweather may be state street.
The news on State Street, however, is very troubling. State Street has no retail franchise to draw deposits from if it needs to fund liquidity line draws. If the chatter on State Street is true, State Street's ability to fund through the interbank market may be the first real tell in the US as to how big a liquidity problem we have."
Finally, no one is talking about it yet, but I think the market will soon begin to realize that the credit card lenders have in essence become the consumer lenders of last resort. As consumers have been shut out of the mortgage and home equity world, the last available credit is plastic. One statistic that I have found very troubling is the degree to which credit card balance growth is running ahead of retail sales growth - a key sign that the consumer is stretched. In normal times, you would expect aggregate credit card balance growth to run about in line with GDP and retail sales growth. This year it is running almost 2.5 times that. Clearly consumers are using their cards for far more than purchases. And my guess is that for many Americans their credit cards have become the latest, but potentially last, source of financing available.
Because of the oversized credit card balance growth, however, I think the market is missing what is really happening within card issuer portfolios – particularly loss and delinquency data. Today, no one seems to be very concerned about the increases in reported losses and delinquencies. However, when you start to normalize these statistics for the enormous balance growth we’ve seen, the increases in both are quite dramatic.
To put this all together, take Target’s (TGT) latest financial results and you can see the numbers for real. First, credit card balance growth was up 14% year-on-year - almost 1.5 times Target sales growth of 9.5%. Second, thanks to this balance growth, reported year-on-year delinquency ratios are up only a little bit (60+ days delinquencies of 3.5% versus 3.4% a year ago), but the dollars of delinquent accounts are up almost 18% - to $242 mln from $205 mln – and, as an aside, “late fees and other revenue” are up more than 36% year-on-year.
Digging even deeper, you come away with more unanswered questions. First, annualized net write-offs for the quarter were up 17% - 5.4% of loans versus 4.6% during the year ago quarter. But behind that, masked by 14% balance growth, there is a 32% increase in the dollars charged off. Further, and to me more troubling, Target dropped its loan loss allowance from 8.3% of loans at the end of July 2006 ($501 mln) to 7.4% at the end of July 2007 ($509 mln). Had Target kept its provision at 8.3% of loans, the incremental cost would have been over $64 mln or almost 40% of the pre-tax quarterly earnings of Target’s credit card business. Alternatively, had Target kept its provision at the same 1.8 times net charge-offs as last year (an 8.3% allowance on 4.6% in net write-offs), the required ending provision would have been over 9.7% of loans - at an incremental cost to the company of almost $144 mln – all but eliminating earnings from the credit card operation for the quarter. Put simply, when measured in dollars (rather than percentages of balances) Target’s nearly flat year-on-year loan loss allowance does not synch with the increase in loan balances, delinquencies, charge-offs, and late fees.
And while I have used Target as an example, I don’t think Target is alone. As we have seen already in other parts of the credit markets, many banks and finance companies are managing their businesses as if today’s increases in credit deterioration are merely a “blip”, rather than the beginning of a broader, potentially more serious, decline. From where I sit, it looks like it is only going to get worse, and “it’s already in the cards.”
the trouble is already expanding into credit cards as overstretched consumers, now deprived of mortgage equity withdrawal, fail out. this is a confirmation of the consumer slowdown that some have claimed to be underway and many others have tried to dismiss using what amounts to old, backward-looking information about the economy. the equity markets have been pulling back from retail and consumer discretionary. that's important, imo.